Mitt Romney’s major foreign policy speech Monday sounded an awful lot like his forays into some other policy issues, with some grand pronouncements of how much better he’ll make things, followed by few details about how he’d actually do it.
The speech, given at the Virginia Military Institute, was designed to provide voters with a contrast between Romney and President Barack Obama while showing that Romney had a sophisticated worldview worthy of a president. That’s good political strategy, given some diplomatic stumbles during a late-summer Romney trip to Europe.
So how would the Republican challenger be different on foreign policy? In his speech, Romney said America under his presidency would be a more forceful leader in bringing about a “freer, more prosperous and more peaceful world.” He suggested he would provide the “strong, confident, principled global leadership” that “has been written by patriots of both parties.”
But when it came to the application of those principles, Romney was less declarative. Regarding the issues most urgent to the United States, he was vague or decidedly similar to the president. On the civil war in Syria, he said he would find partners to help arm rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a policy similar to Obama’s. On Iran, Romney said he would impose harsher sanctions to deter that country’s march toward developing a nuclear weapon. The president already has overseen the harshest sanctions ever on Iran, crippling its economy.
Romney also said he would reaffirm America’s historical ties with Israel, but he avoided explicitly addressing an issue that is straining the relationship between the two countries – if, when and how the U.S. would support an Israeli strike on Iran in response to the growing nuclear threat. Obama has argued for continuing a diplomatic approach first.
Then there’s the perpetual foreign policy football – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Romney slammed Obama’s failure there, and he promised to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.” That sentiment runs counter to Romney portraying Israeli-Palestinian peace as practically hopeless at the Florida fundraiser famously caught on tape earlier this year. Romney’s promise Monday is also essentially what most every recent presidential challenger, including Obama, has vowed to do then failed to deliver.
Such is the nature of foreign policy and presidential politics. Challengers have plenty to choose from when leveling a critique of the incumbent, and given the current unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere, Obama’s foreign policy certainly deserves examination. The administration, in fact, may have opened the door for Romney’s speech by possibly underestimating the potential for attacks in Libya and elsewhere last month, then initially blaming the Libya attacks on something other than terrorism.
Oddly, Romney pointed Monday to Libya as an illustration of hope in the Middle East. Tens of thousands of Libyans protested against those terrorist attacks, he told the audience. The reason, which Romney didn’t note: Libyans appreciated the U.S. role in helping to free them from the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
Would Romney have participated more forcefully in Libya’s leadership change, or perhaps just more loudly? He didn’t say. We hope that moving forward, Romney can tell voters more precisely how he’d confront the complex and evolving challenges that he might face as president. Saying he’ll lead is not enough.